“Buddha was right: difficulty and suffering keep coming at us in small and large ways. If we’re not doing daily practice, we will just get better at adding to our suffering.”
The morning started like any other. A glance through the news, coffee, journal time, meditation. Running a bit late, I grabbed a final mug of coffee and dashed out the door.
As I got into the car, I put the mug of coffee on the console between the driver and passenger seats. Wanting to check my schedule book for the day before driving to work, I reached for it in the back seat and knocked the coffee mug over. Black coffee all over the cloth seats and carpeting! An instantaneous F-bomb erupted from somewhere deep in my storehouse of self-judgment. Any peace and centeredness I’d attained up to that point in the morning were gone as if a glassy ocean surface had suddenly been breached by a great white shark.
These kinds of moments remind me that daily meditation practice cannot overturn Buddha’s first noble truth. Suffering is indeed a part of every life. Sometimes it shows up in big ways, other times it’s F-bombs when a mug of joe becomes a carpet bomb!
I grew up in a home in which foul language was forbidden. When I hear it come out of me in adult life I know I’ve lost my center. But when I curse now, I don’t feel the fear of getting in trouble I felt as a kid or the shame of having offended a God I was taught could be angered by such words. I just smile and tell myself: “Better step up your daily meditation practice.”
A man (I’ll call him Mike) I worked with recently was asked by his wife and adult children to get into therapy. They all considered him too intense and not focused enough on family relationships. His angry outbursts had been a feature of the family for decades, but now the children were old enough to join their mother in telling him to deal with it.
Two months into therapy I asked Mike how his daily mindfulness practice was going.
“Oh, I’m not doing that much anymore because I haven’t blown up at anybody for a few weeks,” he said.
“No, no, no!” I said. “Mindfulness is not a temporary technique to get past a bump in the road. It’s a way of living, a way of becoming a better version of yourself as a husband, father, and human being. If it were a medicine, the dosing instructions would say: Take multiple times per day every day for the rest of your life.”
Why do we need to live heavily meditated? Because Buddha was right: difficulty and suffering keep coming at us in small and large ways. If we’re not doing daily practice, we will just get better at adding to our suffering by how we attempt to deal with it or ignore it. I tell patients like Mike that you wouldn’t expect to hit a three-point shot in an NBA game if you hadn’t practiced it tens of thousands of times before being put in the game. We can’t expect to handle stress well most of the time if we’re not showing up to the daily practice of making sure we are grounded in calmness, nonreactivity, and non-judgment.
I don’t know many people who hope to live heavily medicated. But I think we can aspire to live heavily meditated. How do we do that? A daily formal meditation practice—even as little as five or ten minutes—is a good baseline to set our intention to live mindfully and to increase our awareness of the breath as our go-to when we lose our center. But most of living heavily meditated is going to the breath many times per day, sometimes hundreds of times. Putting small gaps between stimulus and response throughout the day allows us to choose our responses (behaviors, thoughts, emotions) instead of living with automatic, reactive ones like my F-bomb after the coffee carpet bomb.
Here is a piece about living heavily meditated from my book Now Is Where God Lives: A Year of Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul.